What is marriage?
From a legal standpoint, Federal District Court Judge Vaughn Walker's decision repealing Proposition 8 and reinstating equal marriage rights in California could not be clearer: Civil marriage with the person of one's choice is an established right under the law. All citizens, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, have equal access to that right and equal protection under that law. Period.
However, we have learned from hard experience that establishing equality under the law does not necessarily translate into acceptance in American life.
What truly will establish marriage equality is widespread recognition of the common values held by most Americans that provide the moral foundation for marriage in our society. Most Americans -- 77 percent -- profess to be Christian in their faith. It is time for Christians, far and wide, to speak out from our faith as clearly as Judge Walker has from the perspective of the law.
This is exactly what Rev. Janie Spahr, Honorably Retired Presbyterian Minister, is doing this week in Napa, CA. Rev. Spahr is being tried by her church for presiding at the weddings of same-gender couples in the summer of 2008, when these marriages were legally recognized by the state of California. The question at hand is what marriage means in the church.
The wedding service in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Common Worship highlights the fundamental qualities of marriage: to be loving and faithful in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. The rings are exchanged "as a sign of our covenant in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
But this vision of marriage, so familiar to us now, is not the historic Biblical model. From start to finish, the Biblical norm for human marriage is patriarchal dominance by the husband/father -- a far cry from the mutual love between equals that most American Christians value in marriage. The idea of mutual love emerges in Scripture in the image of marriage used to describe the loving relationship between God and God's people (Hosea 1-3:5, Ephesians 5:22-25, Revelation 21:2-3).
This Biblical association between God's covenant and marriage picked up speed during the Reformation, inspiring a transformation of marriage in which the equality of the partners as children of God dislodged the hierarchy and set the stage for how we view marriage today.
Christians today accept that Scripture and church history teach that the heart of marriage is the love and commitment between the partners, just as it is the heart of the relationship between God in Christ and each of us.
Rev. Spahr's trial gives us all the opportunity to see that two men or two women, in their profound love and commitment for one another, can exemplify all the qualities we cherish in marriage. For example, Kathryn Mudie and Susan McDaniel have been together 22 years. Kathryn is now retired after 33 years as a registered nurse and Susan works as a physical therapy assistant in a skilled nursing facility. During their years as a couple, they have taken care of all four of their aging parents, each of whom received healthy and loving care.
Then there is Jane Elizabeth, a high school language teacher, and Beth Buckingham-Brown, an ordained Presbyterian minister who also serves on the board of a nonprofit organization that is improving the lives of AIDS orphans. The list of these wonderful couples married by Rev. Spahr goes on and on.
Through Rev. Spahr's trial we have a window onto the lives of many of the couples she married and the way their marriages arise from their faith in God. Their strong marriages sustain their families and their significant service in the world.
So ask yourself, what do you value most about your own marriage, and why?
My view of marriage as a covenant between two people -- including between two men or two women -- arises from my Christian faith. My tradition teaches that, at its core, marriage is about mutual love and committed relationship. It is about caring for family and community, and growing together as individuals and as a couple.
When gay and lesbian couples, like those who will testify this week at Rev. Spahr's trial, find the courage to come out to their community of faith and testify to the sacredness of their relationship with God and one another, they remind us all how much we have in common.
And once we have heard their stories, we as Christians have a responsibility to speak out in our own communities and congregations and remind one another every day what's most important in marriage: the sacred covenant between two people that mirrors our relationship with God.
When we focus on shared values, rooted in our faith, more Americans will support marriage equality. And, as a nation, we will join in what God is already doing--rejoicing when two men or two women who love and cherish each other are wed in holy matrimony.
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